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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Nine Ladies Dancing



http://www.taipeitimes.com/images/2013/06/13/p12-130613-a2.jpg
Nine ladies dancing


I have already discussed the interesting story of "dance", but what about "lady", a word obviously close to my heart?

It is derived from an Old English word, hlæfdie, a compound of hlæf (bread) and dige (kneader). From its earliest appearance in written records, this "bread kneader" was the woman in charge of a household.

The second element of the compound, dige, is related to the word that gave us "dairy", as we saw in our last post. The first element, hlæf, evolved into "loaf", its place as the collective word for the staff of life usurped by "bread", which started out meaning "a piece of food". "Give us today our daily loaf" and "I am the loaf of life," said Anglo-Saxon Gospel translations.

When I first started my word history segments on CBC Radio, there was much agonizing among the producers as to whether it was ok for the host to call me "the Word Lady" or if in fact this was sexist. Should it be "Word Woman" instead, they wondered (well, some of them suggested that "Word Wench" had a nice ring to it). To me, "Word Woman" had connotations of superhero(ine?) about it. After looking into it, I decided that any hesitation I had about "Word Lady" was due to its association in my mind with compounds like "tea lady"and "cleaning lady", and that I should just get over myself. So, Word Lady I am. If "lady" is good enough for the Virgin Mary, it should be good enough for me, I figure.


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For what swans have to do with singing, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-swans-swimming.html

Why we don't say "gooses" and "gooselings: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-geese-laying.html


For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-fifth-day.html  

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-calling-birds.html

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.html

2 comments:

  1. If I were asked about pejorative connotations of the word "lady", what comes to mind is the sanctimonious officiousness of the "church lady", or the wealthy callousness of the "lady who lunches" rather than the low status of the cleaning lady.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are definitely those, too. Not to mention the aggressiveness of the vocative, "Hey lady!" which usually precedes some criticism.

      Delete

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.